Occupy Wall Street (OWS) videos like Where Do We Go From Here implies that racism has been eliminated within the movement by superficially incorporating diverse participants into its frame. OWS’s General Assembly, however, was consistently run by white men, as stressed by the People of Color Working Group.
Superficial comparisons between OWS and the civil rights movement punctuates Where Do We Go From Here, giving it a sanctimonious and smug feel. Tellingly, the video provides white men the most time to express their views.
Where Do We Go From Here ends with a series of participants breaking the fourth wall, imploring viewers to join their cult/cause as ethereal music plays over their images.
Malik Rhassab created this Occupy the Hood video to address the lack of representation of poor people of color within OWS. Unlike Where Do We Go From Here, Occupy the Hood possesses no background music, minimizes editing, and utilizes a handheld camera, revealing the material inequities that underlie its making.
As we watch people standing in a food line, Malik comments: “They’re feeding more people here than my mayor feeds.” (Occupy the Hood)
Occupy the Hood states that poor people of color have been occupied for centuries. Malik stresses: “Wall Street has been built upon slave bones” (Occupy the Hood). Despite such appeals by minority communities, OWS never significantly addressed or engaged with historically disenfranchised communities. Its liberal and anarchist-inflected practices failed to acknowledge the structural racism that pervades capitalism and activist structures like itself. Although it turned the national debate to issues of poverty and economic inequality, OWS never deepened its analyses to explore in a sustained fashion how gender, racial, and sexual discrimination accompanied such class issues.
This type of activist camerawork is significant in the way it situates itself differently from traditional documentary form by further stressing the type of embodied immediacy that Roger Hallas identified operating in direct-action AIDS activist videos. As Patricia Zimmerman notes, this on-the-ground type style of filmmaking
We witness this uniting of political action and image making most dramatically as the camera runs for cover and is jostled by the other student bodies. When the camera positions itself to steadily focus on the classroom door as the police enter, it is not just documenting an event, but also moderating the police’s behavior. Filming itself becomes an intervention made explicit by Jourdan’s refusing to sit on the floor with the other protestors. Because Jourdan remains standing, the camera holds a somewhat defiant position that visually locates itself literally on the side of the protestors while at the same time carving out an optimum viewpoint from which to observe how the protestors are being treated by the police. This moment clearly represents the different but related registers of the space of the videomaking and the space of the political. The video, as a result, not only captures the affective dimensions of a student group being invaded by the police, but also provides a direct intervention during the moment of confrontation between students and police.
Jourdan, like many other videographers, is highly aware of the importance of aesthetics in situating audiences. He speaks of his own aesthetic:
This wider framing of the battle of the story is abundantly clear in how Occupied Berkeley establishes the main issues at its beginning, assuming that its audience might be unfamiliar with them and tracing how these concerns relate to California as a whole. Furthermore, the video effectively minimizes its focus on police repression by maintaining primary focus on the students’ issues, tactics and strategies.
Yet in spite of all this careful framing and well-crafted editing, the video went viral. Jourdan complains,
This observation hints at a larger dilemma in social justice media: how might videomakers be able to counter the simplification of their content into nothing more than riot porn when it is distributed? Furthermore, it questions why riot porn tends to trump other material rather than simply co-exist with it.
The popularity of the most violent imagery of Occupied Berkeley speaks to an even older problem of spectacle-based activism: how does one prevent one’s message from being co-opted and distorted? The Black Panthers provide an illuminating example here. Although they engaged in many mundane but essential tasks like supplying food, childcare, transportation, and education to the community, their image of being armed and standing in formation predominated in mainstream media. At the same time, as T.V. Reed explains, however, such imagery should not simply be dismissed as an empty theatrical stunt. He writes,
A more serious problem arises, though, when such imagery not only trumps activists’ other actions but also further draws down police and government repression and violence. The Black Panthers’ confrontational imagery and attitude helped lead to the untimely deaths of many of their members by bolstering white prejudices already held by many police and government officials. This reliance upon a spectacle of confrontation might energize some viewers to join such movements or engage in sympathetic actions. But such imagery comes at a high price of drawing further police and government infiltration and violence that exacerbates the internal tensions within such groups and accelerates their dissolution as it had done for the Black Panthers and would later impact eco-activists during the 1990s and 2000s after the Earth Liberation Front engaged in the dubious tactics of arson against environmentally unsound organizations and drew immense federal scrutiny and repression against much of the environmental movement.
What Occupied Berkeley further adds is that even producing one’s own independent media doesn’t prevent its more sensationalistic aspects from being distorted and over-emphasized as it is distributed over the web. It exposes the limits of such media in reaching wider audiences in its original form. And it begs the question if such fetishization can ever be avoided if viewers desire that kind of spectacle—regardless of whether such desires are conditioned by the commercial media and/or speak to more innate human tendencies or both.
As this brief example shows, the practices of activist videomakers are complicated and at times contradictory. Although clearly allied with the students in defending affordable higher education, Jordan’s reliance upon a career of independent videomaking nonetheless engages in neoliberal practices that actually challenge the very existence of state support. Although one does not want to overplay the significance of one progressive videomaker’s actions as simply supporting a neoliberal world view, they gesture towards the contradictory terrain such activist media-makers must negotiate as they level their skills against capitalist practices that they are also implicated within. Similarly, Democracy Now!, which provides a viable distribution platform for Occupied Berkeley to be viewed by the progressive community, relies upon the very practices of outsourcing below-the-line video-makers that we also see operating in commercial productions. In other words, the political economy of activist media-making tends to problematize in part the progressive material being filmed. Here neoliberal networks and anarchist affinities converge into a twisted terrain of hybrid practices. As opposed to the rhetoric that often posits neoliberalism and anarchism as mutually exclusive, we can see their affinities and relations—without suggesting that they are identical.
Occupy Wall Street and the anarchist imaginary
Occupy Wall Street (OWS) offers a more recent example of how neoliberal inequities can be perpetuated when anarchist-inflected practices are uncritically adopted. Although it never announced itself as anarchist, OWS adhered to many anarchist-inflected practices such as holding General Assemblies (GA) based upon consensus-based decision-making, direct-action protest and organizing, and attempts at nonhierarchical relations. Many positive things emerged from the Occupy movement, such as shifting national attention back to issues of poverty and inequality, exposing police violence, yet again, to global audiences, and rejuvenating ties and a sense of agency among activists and those interested in social justice. But as the dust settled on OWS, much critique has also arisen regarding the dysfunction and inequities perpetuated by its anarchist tendencies and liberal outlook. Todd Gitlin recalls sitting through numerous General Assemblies where class and racial tensions flared among a sea of confused working groups lacking any direction. According to many participants, Zuccotti Park, the site of the occupation, self-segregated along class lines with middle-class member occupying its east end and its more lower-class members at its west, exposing how divisions within the 99% persisted.
In spite of individual appeals for equity, informal leaders arose who often held privileged racial and class status. In Zuccotti Park, A Call to People of Color was issued on October 1, 2011 by the People of Color Working Group after observing the prevailing whiteness of the General Assemblies. In it, the working group asserted, “This monumental movement risks replicating the very structures of injustice it seeks to eliminate. And so we are actively working to unite the diverse voices of all communities, in order to understand exactly what is at stake, and to demand that a movement to end economic injustice must have at its core an honest struggle to end racism,” which OWS never did.
Furthermore, the GA obscured the informal hierarchies and working relations that actually determined OWS actions by falsely asserting itself as the primary forum for such decision-making. As the collective Not an Alternative, whose founders had been a part of the alter-globalization movement, address :
The videos produced by OWS also emerged from such informal channels and reflected many of these racial and class privileges of the people who created them. This became most apparent during the livestreaming of events that those with privilege often saw as indicating “transparency.” At the same time that the videomakers streamed material publicly, many people of color and transgendered and queer people felt uncomfortable being filmed and streamed since their image's transmission made them felt exposed and vulnerable. Furthermore, those narrating the livestreams, often white and male, started to achieve a celebrity that opposed OWS’s nonhierarchical aspirations.
Most of the videos produced by OWS seem based on a vague liberal impulse that refused to engage with structural inequities that the People of Color Working Group cited by instead bathing in a New Age aura that celebrates individuality. Where Do We Go From Here (http://vimeo.com/30778727), for instance, opens with synthetic ethereal music. The camera smoothly floats across the screen capturing attractive and diverse participants—young and old, black and white, male and female— speaking to one another, determinedly typing on laptops, and providing food. Periodically, someone spouts a hollow aphorism: “It kind’a feels like something is finally being done. Like people are waking up”—or a worn-out Civil Rights cliché: “When Rosa Parks refused to give-up her seat on the bus...no one knew that four years later there would be a comprehensive Civil Rights Act.”
The video’s sanctimonious feel—established through its semi-religious music, floating camera movements, and hollow rhetoric—can be off-putting. It presents those depicted within it as the anointed and leaves the rest of us less pious rabble watching from the outside in the cold. It possesses an oppressive inclusivity that smothers us by its ever-present wind music and beautified participants, who imploringly stare out at us during its conclusion. The video makes OWS seem more like a cult than a diverse movement, more therapy than politics, a United Colors of Benetton commercial rather than a documentary seriously engaging with structural disenfranchisement. It reinforces Todd Gitlin’s observation that
Such videos’ effacing of actual inequities led some people of color to produce their own videos in response. In Occupy the Hood (http://vimeo.com/30146870), Malik Rhassan, from Queens, states how people of color were underrepresented at OWS even though Wall Street practices have been negatively impacting communities of color for decades. He notes,
Rhassan’s style is much more minimal than in other OWS videos. The visuals largely consist of a two-shot of Malik and another African-American male with a red Che Guevara shirt speaking before a handheld camera. The camera swivels a bit to gaze upon other participants. Malik relates a series of useful information directly to the camera: “And they stopped the welfare and they stopped food stamps on October first in Detroit.” An occasional photograph of protestors and famous supporters like Cornel West is interspersed in the mere three minutes of footage.
Malik asserts, “We’ve been occupied for years. Wall Street has been built upon slave bones.” A shot of a flag waving “Debt is Slavery” follows showing the linkages between the metaphor and the historical reality. He continues, “They’re feeding more people here than my mayor feeds.” The camera turns around to show a table of food being dished out to a line of people. The camera zooms in on some apples, bread, condiments, and boxes of additional supplies. The other man adds as the camera swivels back, the sound of his voice fades-in as the camera’s mic returns to him:
A sense of urgency pervades the sequence not only in the amount of information mentioned, but also through the rough camera-style that frantically scans the backdrop while simultaneously trying to focus upon the two speakers. The camera tries to ingest as much as possible in a very limited amount of time. Furthermore, the sequence’s rather spotty sound and minimal editing suggests that its makers do not have much familiarity with video production but are nonetheless jumping into it since the moment requires it.
The minimal production style speaks to the poverty and neglect that have suffused urban, working-class communities. The video lacks the music, smooth editing, and general gloss found in other OWS shorts. Unlike the New Age demeanor of Where Do We Go From Here with its moderate pacing and smooth camera movements that imply the socio-economic privilege that informs the video’s very form, Occupy the Hood captures within its shaky camera movements, choppy editing, and shorter length a more amateur approach employed by someone who has been more versed in the ways of YouTube videos than formally trained at film school.
These two videos represent some of the advances and setbacks that still relate to anarchist-inflected video activism. The lower costs of technology and accessibility of new distribution platforms have allowed historically disenfranchised people like Malik more access to video production than ever before. So after witnessing the racial privilege that predominated throughout the GA and the failure of its organizers to address it, Malik could return to Queens and make videos with his friends that forced such issues to be addressed and get publicized in the media. But those with racial and class privileges continue to make more, longer, more professionally produced, and often better publicized videos, which can at times remain blissfully unaware of these structural inequities that make such videos possible in the first place by celebrating an abstract individualism that haunts both anarchist and liberal outlooks. Furthermore, those with privilege are more likely to have their videos distributed in highly visible venues not only since they often hold connections to the gatekeepers of such venues like that of activist film festivals and public broadcasting, but the “more professional” quality of their videos often appeals to the aesthetic biases of such gatekeepers that make distribution possible.
Because OWS relied both upon anarchist-inflected practices and a vague liberalism that failed to explore how such outlooks are premised upon implicitly informal exclusionary and hierarchical practices—even when people of color repeatedly state so—it couldn’t help but alienate itself from a majority of working-class and minority communities. For example, even though the occupation of Zuccotti Park bordered Chinatown, one of the last remaining poor immigrant communities in Manhattan, no attempts were made by OWS organizers to create a neighboring community alliance. Not surprisingly, early demographic assessment of the Occupy movement as a whole suggests that it was largely white, college educated, and youthful—with women slightly outnumbering men.
This brief historical overview of U.S. anarchist-inflected video practices exposes both the limits and possibilities that undergird them. By addressing anarchism, we can better see the interconnections not only between various video activist formations and their historical trajectory, but also their relations to neoliberal networks and the inequities these groups sometimes perpetuate. Regardless of how one might feel about anarchism, anarchist-based affinities and practices run throughout much U.S. video activism. By failing to acknowledge this long-running underpinning of video activism, we remain blinded to a vast network of individuals and collectives struggling against the gross inequities produced by neoliberalism and its concentrations of wealth. Although their struggles might not be perfect and replicate some of the very injustices they are attempting to overcome, these video activists represent an important part of the mediascape and their working processes have still remained under-analyzed. This essay offers an initial foray into the topic in order to encourage further discussion. It is time that anarchism becomes a frame of reference to understand contemporary video and media activism.